- Jason King
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The American Athletic Conference will be far from the best league in America in its inaugural season, 2013-14.
But it might have the best team.
Louisville -- which will compete in the conference for just one season before bolting for the ACC -- returns three starters and nearly every key reserve from the squad that cut down the nets in Atlanta in April.
Considering most pundits call the Cardinals a threat to repeat as NCAA champion, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Rick Pitino’s team will win its own league. In fact, of all the major conferences in the country, the American seems to have the most obvious shoo-in champ in Louisville.
Not that the rest of the league members are ready to admit it.
As potent as Russ Smith, Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and the rest of the Cards appear, there are plenty of other schools in the league that feel more than capable of challenging the defending champion.
Here’s a quick look at the teams that could alter Louisville’s quest for a league title in its only year in the American Athletic Conference.
Memphis: After dominating Conference USA for years -- including a 16-0 finish last season -- the Tigers will be eager to test themselves against higher-level competition during league play. Adonis Thomas, D.J. Stephens and Tarik Black are gone from last season’s 31-5 squad, but there is hardly a shortage of talent on the roster. Memphis’ biggest strength will be its backcourt, which should be among the best in the country and No. 1 in the conference. Point guard Joe Jackson, a three-year starter who averaged 13.6 points last season, is back along with standout shooters Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, an energy guy. The biggest key, though, centers on the eligibility status of former Missouri player Michael Dixon, who will be Memphis’ top overall guard if the NCAA grants him a waiver that would allow him to play. If Dixon is eligible, the Tigers could employ a four-guard lineup at times. Coach Josh Pastner is counting on sophomore Shaq Goodwin to make significant strides in the paint after averaging 7.4 points in 20.2 minutes last season. Power forward Austin Nichols and small forward Kuran Iverson are freshmen who are expected to make an immediate impact for a program that nearly upset Louisville in nonconference action last season.
Connecticut: Speaking of strong backcourts, Connecticut will also have one of the best thanks to the return of guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who combined to average 33.5 points and nine assists last season. Double-digit scorers DeAndre Daniels (12.1 points) and Omar Calhoun (11.1) also return. The biggest concern with UConn is its lack of depth in the paint. The Huskies ranked second-to-last in the Big East last season in rebounding. Overall, though, Kevin Ollie’s first season at Connecticut was deemed a success. He did an excellent job under difficult circumstances. The Huskies -- who were banned from postseason competition -- had nothing to play for but went 20-10. Here’s betting that Ollie’s second season will be defined by even more success.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats took a hit when underrated point guard Cashmere Wright graduated, but optimism for Mick Cronin’s squad is still high thanks to the return of second-team All-Big East selection Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 17 points as a junior and 14.6 points as a sophomore. Kilpatrick has been one of the top players for Team USA in this summer’s World University Games in Russia. Forward Titus Rubles also returns after averaging 5.9 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior. In all, Cincinnati returns seven players who averaged double-digit minutes for a team that went 22-12 and lost in the NCAA tournament to Creighton. Expect power forward Jermaine Lawrence -- the 35th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.com -- to play a big role as a freshman.
SMU: Could the Mustangs earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993 one season after finishing 15-17? Enough help is on the way to make it a possibility. Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, who redshirted last season, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team in 2011-12. Signee Yanick Moreira was the top-ranked junior college big man in the nation, and incoming freshman Keith Frazier will become the first McDonald’s All-American ever to suit up for SMU, which also returns three double-digit scorers in Nick Russell, Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel. If Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown gets this group to jell quickly, this could be the best season for Mustangs basketball in recent memory. SMU is also nearing completion on a renovation project of about $50 million to Moody Coliseum, which is scheduled to reopen in December.
Temple: The Owls lost their top three players in Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. Still, Temple will be considered a threat as long as Fran Dunphy is the coach. Dunphy has led Temple to six straight NCAA tournament berths and at least 24 wins in each of the past four seasons. The Owls will be sparked by leading returning scorer and rebounder Anthony Lee, a forward who averaged 9.8 points and 6.8 boards last season. Starting guard Will Cummings is also back after averaging 5.8 points and 1.9 assists.
Houston: James Dickey’s squad won 20 games last season but went just 7-9 in Conference USA. There are enough returning pieces to make the 2013-14 season a success, even with the transfer of leading scorer Joseph Young. Houston brings back standout forward TaShawn Thomas (16.9 points, 9.8 rebounds) and athletic wing Danuel House, who should make tremendous strides after averaging 12.4 points as a freshman. The Cougars also will add Danrad “Chicken” Knowles, a 2012 signee who was academically ineligible last season. House was the 19th-ranked player in the Class of 2012 ESPN 100; Knowles was No. 51. Dickey also is crossing his fingers that Baylor transfer L.J. Rose is granted a waiver that would allow him to play immediately. Rose was the ninth-ranked point guard in the Class of 2012 (No. 63 overall) but played sparingly as a freshman at Baylor last season as a backup to Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson.